Prospect theory as a descriptive theory of terrorist choice

On April 19th, 1995, Timothy McVeigh ignited a homemade truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 persons, injuring close to 700 more, and triggering massive news coverage at home and abroad. Five days later, the director of the California Forest Association, Gilbert Murray, was killed instantly when he opened a small package that had been mailed to his office. The enclosed message revealed that the sender was the mysterious person dubbed ‘Unabomber’ by the FBI; he had killed already 2 other people and injured 23 via mail bombs since 1978. That same day, The New York Times received a letter from the Unabomber threatening another deadly parcel bomb mailing unless the newspaper published a 35,000 words manifesto he had written to explain his motives. It is difficult to imagine that there was no link between the non-stop coverage of the terrorist spectacular in Oklahoma City and the timing of the simultaneous mailings to Murray’s office and the Times. My guess was then and is now that the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczvnski, was miffed because of the relatively modest news coverage his mail bombs had received over the years compared to the tremendous attention the mass media paid to the Oklahoma City bombing.1

Each terrorist action is characterised by a range of possible outcomes. This is the essence of risk. We need a way to represent risky decision-making if we are to find patterns in choices made under these conditions. There are a number of different but related models of decision-making under risk that we can use to work out preference orderings over risky prospects. The orthodox model is called expected utility theory. It was developed by von Neumann & Morgenstern (1947). It is a mathematical model that prescribes the best ranking. In some parts of economics, this prescription has become synonymous with the rational choice. How decision-makers should choose has become blended with a prediction about how decision-makers will choose (i.e. in such a way as to maximise their expected utility). Prospect theory was developed in the late 1970s as a generalisation of expected utility theory that incorporates not a prescription for rational behaviour but a description of actual behaviour. Once we begin to view terrorist behaviour through the prospect theory lens, a whole set of new pattern predictions and possible explanations for observed behaviour opens up before us. This includes a natural trigger for copycat behaviour.

One of the most famous hijacking cases in US history is the so-called D.B. Cooper case. On November 24,1971, a man who the press dubbed ‘D.B. Cooper’ hijacked a Boeing 727 over the Pacific Northwest. He was paid a ransom of S200,0002 in cash before parachuting out of the plane, never to be heard from again. The case remains unsolved. It is just one of the many hijackings to take place in the late 1960s and early 1970s,3 but the D.B. Cooper case is interesting not just because of its details and the fact that the identity and fate of the hijacker remains a mystery. The D.B. Cooper hijacking, which was covered widely by the press, appears to have initiated a series of copycat hijackings. In 1972, there were 15 hijackings of commercial aircraft that bore remarkable similarities to the D.B. Cooper case. For example, on April 7,1972, Richard McCoy Jr also hijacked a Boeing 727. He was paid a $500,0004 ransom before parachuting from the plane. He was identified and apprehended a few days later. Each of the other 14 hijackings were similar in nature. Although most of the hijackers escaped with ransom money, they were invariably arrested a short time later.

Copycat acts of violence are usually studied as emulation processes triggered by some action and amplified by some medium, usually news, television or film (Coleman 2007; Nacos 2009; Dahl & DellaVigna 2009). Although it has been recognised that many offenders seek to outdo a predecessor, this motivation is simply encompassed within—perhaps even submerged beneath—an emulation process that is driven primarily by contagion (Midlarsky, Crenshaw & Yoshida 1980; Fagan, Wilkinson & Davies 2007). Prospect theory, however, has a natural application to copycat behaviour with real decision-maker agency that we first operationalised in our 2014 paper, Prospect Theory and Terrorist Choice (Phillips & Pohl 2014). That is, the outcomes achieved by a predecessor or rival become the reference point for the copycat. This produces a set of inferences and pattern predictions about copycat violence and copycat terrorism. For example, that a copycat terrorist will choose a more risky attack method than his predecessor if the reference point that has been set by that predecessor’s achievements is very high relative to the expected outcomes of the available attack methods. This approach has the added advantage of predicting that a copycat might be driven to depart from the precise details of his predecessor’s actions depending on whether he finds himself in the domain of gains or losses. There are other pattern predictions besides. In order to get at them, let us explore some of the basics of prospect theory.

52 Prospect theory—theory of terrorist choice

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